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The Gift of Community

Northwestern students experience Japan through the Kakehashi Project

Omiyage is a vibrant component of Japan’s rich gift-giving culture. Gifted to one’s coworkers and friends upon returning from an out-of-town trip, these individually wrapped treats—typically local to the place visited—are a way of including others in the experience of the trip. For Northwestern senior Amanda Ritter (WCAS2017), distributing omiyage, such as candies featuring painted pandas, provided an opportunity to open up a dialogue about her experience in Japan as a part of the Kakehashi Project.

“I had all these gifts for my friends and family, which was a great way to share parts of the culture that I came to really know and love and give them to other people,” says Amanda, who is double-majoring in political science and film studies. “The aspects of Japanese culture I came to understand better includes respect for each other and the gift giving process, acknowledging and appreciating the community, and harmony in the community.”

Amanda was one of 23 economics and political science students selected to participate in the Kakehashi Project, which included a fully-funded trip to Japan during spring break. Sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan and the Japan International Cooperation Center, and coordinated by Northwestern's Office of International Relations, students were invited to experience traditional and popular culture as well as gain a greater understanding of Japanese industry. To this end, students engaged in a wide range of activities, from participating in a tea ceremony and shopping in electronic shopping district Akihabara to meeting with the Japan External Trade Organization and touring the Toyota factory facilities. A highlight of the trip for Amanda was visiting a local university in Kitakyushu, made possible through a personal connection to one of the group’s tour guides.

“We got to make bento boxes with the university students and learn a little bit about their culture from the Kitakyushu standpoint and the school that they were attending,” says Amanda. “We were the only school that got to visit, which was really unique.”

In addition to promoting an increased understanding of Japan with friends and family, students recently gathered in front of a Japanese delegation—including Consul-General of Japan in Chicago Naoki Ito—at Kellogg’s Global Hub to discuss an implementation plan for ongoing engagement between Japan and Northwestern. Amanda and fellow senior Ashley Wood (WCAS 2017) presented outreach strategies developed by the group, including connecting with like-minded departments on campus to plan events centered on Japan. By acting as campus resources, those involved in the Kakehashi Project endeavor to create opportunities for more Northwestern students and community members to learn about Japan’s economy, culture, and politics.

“We extended an invitation to Consul General Ito and his team to visit campus, which provided an incredibly unique opportunity for our students to share their experiences,” says Emily Wilson, director for international relations at Northwestern’s Office of International Relations. “The student-led presentation was an exciting way to strengthen our efforts in building the global community at Northwestern.”

While Amanda is graduating this year, she plans to incorporate what she has learned through the Kakehashi Project into her professional career as an associate at LinkedIn. Specifically, Amanda has brought back a “hostess mentality” in which importance is placed on making sure everyone in the room feels welcome and included. This effort, she argues, can be realized through the culture of gift giving.

“I love that idea that people are exchanging things that really mean something to them,” says Amanda. “It’s a way of bridging gaps and a nice gesture to show community across borders.”

View all photos from the Kakehashi trip here.
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